Literary Review

A is for Arsenic

“I was a child with a cumbersome imagination,” said French author and publisher Véronique Ovaldé in the first session of the Hindustan Times Crime Writers Festival 2016. Her relationship with the written word, she attributed to her own “toxic” past. Having grown up where books were forbidden, she explores the lack of control by having her characters make errors of judgment. Going down these unpredictable dark paths fulfils, she explained, her desire to be surprised by her own text, until “the story escapes from me”.



Kriti Bajaj


Not the typical elements we associate with crime fiction, but if there was one thing to learn from the second edition of Delhi’s niche festival, it was the sheer diversity and malleability of the genre we often limit to detectives, murders, perverse thrills and glamour. Over the course of two days, writers, journalists, lawyers and filmmakers from India, Israel, France, Spain, Italy, the UK — and a Swede reincarnated as a Bangalorean — came together to chat about crime in a cordoned-off corner of the historic Oxford Bookstore.

The first draft of the Crime Writers Festival was concocted in a London café by festival directors Namita Gokhale and Lady Kishwar Desai. Enthused by the idea of a genre-focused literary platform that could allow for more intimate, intense discussions, they settled on crime writing because it is, as Gokhale said, “unparalleled in its reach, impact and understanding of human nature.”

The Crime Writers Forum (initially Crime Writers Association for South Asia) was launched at the Jaipur Literature Festival in 2014, and the first Crime Writers Festival took place last year. Desai said that they hope to eventually expand the festival across South Asia, have a stronger thrust on writing workshops, introduce a prize for crime writing, and also establish a Crime Writers Association in India. The festival has already grown to involve seven countries, and the aim is to build relationships with them and have events throughout the year.

Alliance Francaise de Delhi, for instance, hosted the first day of the festival with a film programme curated by Kaushik Bhaumik that covered different film cultures and periods of film history, and conveyed a sense of the changing nature of crime itself over time.

Indian crime writers and reporters were also well represented, with several sessions being conducted in Hindi. In addition to Gokhale being a big supporter of local languages, Aditi Maheshwari-Goyal, director of translations and copyrights at Vani Prakashan, commended Priti Paul and Oxford Bookstore for having done a lot for Hindi publishing.

Vivek Agrawal and Sheela Rawal shared their long experience of crime reporting and Mumbai’s underworld, with Agrawal claiming that often criminals have “good minds” but their deviations are born out of a discriminatory system. This aligned with Italian author Piergiorgio Pulixi’s observation that while European crime fiction tends to look inward at the psyche of the criminal, Indian crime fiction is an “excuse to analyse society”.

The media’s role, which sensationalises rather than reports, was discussed by lawyers Karuna Nundy, Liad Shoham and Niharika Karanjawala. Jerry Pinto commented that the crime writing scene in India has a long way to go because there is no space for long-form journalism, which is where a lot of good (foreign) crime writing comes from. And then there was the craft of writing crime itself. Authors shared their personal and often eccentric strategies to approaching their story: autofiction, inconclusive endings, a fast cinematographic style, writing in an experimental collective, assigning colours to characters, naming characters after real people (at least in the first draft), what not to Google when researching deadly poisons, and how to introduce humour without letting it distract from plot.

Chemist and writer Kathryn Harkup, on the occasion of Agatha Christie’s 125th anniversary, spoke about her research into the accurate and detailed use of poisons in the author’s work.

In her book A is for Arsenic, Harkup looks at 14 poisons in 14 books, admiring Christie’s deep knowledge of chemistry and drugs that she often planted in her stories even when they were unessential to the plot. The trick with poisoning, she said, was to “avoid the autopsy.” But after some mildly sinister questions from members of the audience, she was quick to talk about the responsibility of a writer, joking that people read crime fiction because they “want to know how to kill people.”

The audience was diverse and engaged, with both Pulixi and Spanish crime writer Clara Peñalver commenting on the unexpected level of interest and interaction they witnessed. While Swati Babbar, a PhD student of Spanish detective fiction, felt that the festival lacked a bit of the seriousness compared to last year, Manjiri Dahanukar, a student of French translation and interpretation at JNU thought the sessions were timed well and long enough to hold interest. The quiz organised by Quizcraft Global was also immensely popular.

The festival, in general, left most impressed and intrigued. Nothing — not even crime — is perfect, but the Crime Writers Festival has, as Jerry Pinto said, “the makings of a fine festival”.

Kriti Bajaj is a writer and editor based in New Delhi.


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Printable version | Jun 22, 2021 12:36:26 PM | https://www.thehindu.com/books/literary-review/A-is-for-Arsenic/article14015987.ece

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